AIM To evaluate the clinical properties of three subpopulations of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) undergoing epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) patients. METHODS We identified CTCs for expression of the epithelial cell marker cytokeratin or epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) (E-CTC), the mesenchymal cell markers vimentin and twist (M-CTC), or both (E/M-CTC) using the. CanPatrol system. Between July 2014 and July 2016, 107 patients with PDAC were enrolled for CTC evaluation. CTC enumeration and dassification were correlated with patient clinicopathological features and outcomes. RESULTS CTCs were detected in 78.5% of PDAC patients. The number of total CTCs ranged from 0 to 26 across all 107 patients, with a median value of six. CTC status correlated with lymph node metastasis, TNM stage, distant metastasis, blood lymphocyte counts, and neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (NLR). Kaplan-Meier survival analysis showed that patients with >= 6 total CTCs had significantly decreased overall survival and progression-free survival compared with patients with < 6 total CTCs. The presence of M-CTCs was positively correlated with TNM stage (P < 0.01) and distant metastasis (P < 0.01). Additionally, lymphocyte counts and NLR in patients without CTCs were significantly different from those in patients testing positive for each CTC subpopulation (P < 0.01). CONCLUSION Classifying CTCs by EMT markers helps to identify the more aggressive CTC subpopulations and provides useful evidence for determining a suitable clinical approach.